“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
She didn’t want any part of him, but she had to have his head. The Staff of Xrenthis commanded it, beseeched to skewer the head of the Elgae. Xie recalled the creature’s rancid breath melting her under its talons, its wings masking the sun. She could see herself in the monster’s glassy eyes, yellowed and tattered like a sick crumpled book page tossed to the wind. Twice her size and trice her weight, the Elgae could have crushed her as it did many a victim including her son at the ripe age of sixteen. A part of her wanted it to, to spare her suffering beak disembowelment alive and kicking if not to allow her to see her son again. But no, without reason, the creature left her alive that day, a year ago. She didn’t want to try her luck, didn’t want to test her strengths, but again, she had to.
As advisor to the king, she was charged with listening to the Staff of Xrenthis and following its every wish. Born from the holy oak that stood in the middle of Xrenthis, the Staff was crafted by Xie’s own hands. Precious as a child with its smooth finish, head topped with an opal gem, it spoke only to her, whispered intensive measures for the sake of the Xrenthis people and asked that Xie heed them. Some tasks were simple as sowing earth with holy water to bless thriving harvests; others challenged her faith and endurance by requesting she handle foreign affairs with warring nations or warring neighbors, both situations dangerous as the next with the participants’ equal lusts for bloodshed. None was as unfeasible as engaging the Elgae and expecting to come out alive.
Weariness work’s into the king’s eyes when he learns what his advisor must do. “It’s as good a command as asking you to sever your own head. Are you sure you heard it right?”
There was no questioning her translation of the Staff of Xrenthis, they were so fused in mind, so intimate a coupling, and Xie said so.
“To lose my advisor with no protégé at the ready is to lose the trust of kingdom. A king is as good as his right-hand woman. Last I heard of a king trying to rule without an advisor, the city sunk to ruin. Like a body bearing no legs, he had nothing to stand on. You understand, don’t you?”
Xie understood. She must come back alive with the Elgae’s head on the Staff of Xrenthis or doom her whole kingdom. She turned in early for a good night’s rest (as good a night as any plagued by images of beaks snapping and talons clapping and eyes glinting, shrieks of sadism and rage) and headed out before the sun has risen from bed. The king and his guards, as well as all patrons of her kingdom, saw Xie off. Children clutching their mothers’ worn garments made from the same cloth as their security blankets; men still sweating and bleeding from a hard day’s work in the fields, machetes held dismissively at their sides; mules and dogs chewing and panting and looking downright weary for the lackluster event their owners were feeding them. Xie felt like she was the target of their attentions for all the wrong reasons, a corpse at a funeral rather than a wedding bride, pitied not admired, but she carried on without looking back.
Miles on she discovered the cave, home of the Elgae. It was far enough from the kingdom’s patrons that no one could wonder on it by mishap and close enough to tempt the reckless to its open door. Xie found it daft but the reckless did come and, like flies, they got caught in a web they didn’t see until they were inescapably tangled up in it. Entering the Elgae’s cave was suicide, as was entering any animal’s territory but more so when the proprietor was a being pledged to darkness, night vision powerful as God’s Himself; it saw you, always, but seeing it meant you were good as dead if not stone cold already. For all expect Xie.
Night still poured on Xie, night air mingling with morning dew to chill her. She didn’t take her eyes from the cave mouth, but continued to work all but her legs. One hand was working the Staff up and done, gently clanking it on solid ground, wood to stone; her other hand was fisting at her side, curling and uncurling on and off. Sunlight graced her within an hour and all was given life, the grass carpeting the area behind her as well as her stiff, now warming, limbs. Only her vision was trying to sleep, skip away from the cave mouth to a flitting butterfly nearby, close to allow for rest she didn’t have last night, but she couldn’t manage it, losing to distraction. So she stared on.
Xie thought she heard a crack behind her, either the snap of a stick under foot or bone under beak. Her body itched, stressing her to turn. Her mind told her not to. Mind over matter, matter included her thawing flesh and blood which probably didn’t have much judgment anyway. Another crack, closer this time, molested her ears and purpose. Could the Elgae be behind her, stalking her?
Something still told her not to turn, something that almost sounded like her own voice, but not. The Staff of Xrenthis. The Staff was speaking to her without her focus, with only her hand on it and not her eyes or even her mind. That never happened before, and it frightened her. It frightened her and hardened her resolve. She wouldn’t turn.
A flicker interrupted the darkness of the Elgae’s cave, the shadow of a wing. The creature was awakening. Soon she would be forced to witness its monstrosity again and, again, hope her life wasn’t balanced between the breakability of the bird cage shielding her heart and the vigor of a talon’s sword edge. Red plumage appeared as, now, Xie was facing the crown of the creature’s head. Further and further out, it came. Its wings were outstretched making it look like a haunting villain with his hands above his head, sneaking up on his victim with a wickedly hungry grin. The creature made quite the clamor on land as even rocks worked to tumble out of its way. In air, it was another matter.
It hadn’t seen her yet, so keen it was on motion. Stay still, trample the urge to flee, and Xie might have a fighting chance, a chance to fight. She was aware that she didn’t have a true weapon, had never had a need for one, something shiny and pointy that she’d have either poked a finger or cut off a hand with. She had her Staff, pulsing with furious power. It would have to be enough. She was ready.
Luckily, as her nerves betrayed her and the fingers of her free hand twitched; unnoticeable to a normal bird of prey, maybe, but to Elgae, she had written, signed, and broadcasted a death wish. Elgae’s eyes flashed to her and it wasted not a second taking to air. Stillness was useless now and Xie posed for action, her Staff gripped in both hands, ready to shield or draw blood. The monster circled her overhead, zoning in. She had one moment – one. Elgae dove.
Talons struck wood with such majesty, Xie beheld lightning sparks inches from her hands. She was astonished that the Staff didn’t shatter to dust. The opal stone on the Staff’s crest was glowing, spangling the world about her with light multihued. Elgae lifted off with a shriek of pain and Xie noticed the weight she’d been bearing hadn’t all been the creature’s pressure; her Staff was now solid metal. Xie missed when Elgae came back. Angled all wrong she was unable to block a blow to the head from a wing. She flew and landed in a slide. Her right arm felt that it was been massaged with sandpaper but her head was what ailed her most. She patted a hand to her scalp, pulled it away and saw a sheet of red on her palm.
Elgae was coming again. No longer caring for silence, knowing it had essentially made its kill. Her vision going in and out, Xie could hardly make out what was happening about her. Flash: the glint of golden eye made closer by some unknown phenomenon. Flash: beak opened wide swallowing her whole. Flash: talons pinning arms to chest, hers, figured only by the wood-morphed-metal Staff still in hand. She couldn’t feel, not the daggers in her skin. Yet, weight pressed on her, suffocating. Her head swam.
A blur feasted her tunneling vision. The suffocating sensation left her and she was submerged in a mess of angry caws and pain-laced screams and red feather confetti. Xie, on her side heaving, noticed the feathers were red from tip to base, naturally colored and unnaturally dotted in blood where pulled forcibly from flesh. She lay on her back to get a look at the devastation in the sky. Elgae was still fighting, just not with her. Another bird-like creature had materialized and was intent on raking and jabbing Xie’s nemesis. She watched like this until she was sure her heart had quit beating. She knew, while watching them, that this other bird thing, this almost identical creature, was the one she had sat under a year ago. She smiled in the knowledge that she was never spared, that she hadn’t lived while at the creature’s feet where so many had perished. Soon Elgae hailed down beside her, plummeted like the cold hard lump it was.
Her Staff, reverted back to wood, was begging her again. She crawled with the last of her strength and looked down at Elgae. She was aware of how drab eyes lose light and color and influence, they might as well be classic pebbles. She wasted no time whapping the creature sharp across the neck, blow hard enough to sever head from body then she jammed her Staff into it. She grew squeamish at the sight of blood pooling at her Staff’s base, the sound of soft meat squishing, but Xie doesn’t shy from her task. It must be done. The opal gem now hidden in the eagle monster’s head gave the Staff a new gruesome figurehead. The opal restored light to the creature’s eyes, life unto itself; to Xie, the will to live life and strength to do so.
Sierra July is a graduate of University of Florida, as well as a writer and poet whose fiction has appeared in Robot and Raygun and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, and SpeckLit, among many other places, and is forthcoming in Belladonna Publishing’s anthology Strange Little Girls.